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Political Climate by Mark Simon: Seybert stepping down, but sticking around

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When Redwood City Councilman John Seybert was first elected in 2008, at the onset of the national recession, he walked the city’s neighborhoods handing out postcards listing his goals: mainly to build the city to a place of financial stability, and to realize the community’s vision for downtown.

Today, Redwood City’s finances are in the best shape in years and stable, and the city’s center “has really come to life,” Seybert said. The progress has played into Seybert’s decision not to seek another term on the council, which is rare for an incumbent.

But that doesn’t mean Seybert is going anywhere. In a lengthy interview with Climate Online, Seybert discussed his plans for continued involvement in his community, an activism that began before he ran for office and was never dependent on official trappings.

He said he would have run again if he was certain “I hadn’t finished the work I set out to do and if there was no one ready to step up.” That’s not to say there isn’t more to do. “There are always more things you want to do,” Seybert said.

“This a good place for me not to retire, but to redeploy myself somewhere else,” said Seybert, who spent eight years in the Planning Commission, nine years on the City Council. “I don’t plan to be less busy, I plan to be differently busy.”

Seybert’s transition provides him an opportunity to reflect on the current political climate in Redwood City, particularly the complaints from some that Redwood City was a better place 25 or 30 years ago, before the growth that has dominated the past decade.

“I say it this way,” Seybert said. “There are some people who hate the city they always hated.” In other words, some people hated Redwood City the way it was – a downtown without any real substance – and what it has become.

As he put it, some people following Moses probably complained, “Let’s go back to Egypt.”

He acknowledged there is more traffic and congestion downtown, but said that’s a sign of a vigorous city center, one with places to go, things to do and people there who want to do those things.

When he first moved to Redwood City, he lived three blocks from downtown and “I liked it when I could always get a seat at dinner,” Seybert said. “But that’s not a vibrant community.” People who complain about no parking downtown should check in with the owners of their favorite restaurants. They may like that so many people are in a downtown that was notably a “ghost town” after 5 p.m., Seybert said.

Beyond his own campaign commitments of 2008, Seybert said the other controlling factor in his decision was whether there are new faces ready to take on leadership roles.

Besides Jeff Gee and Diane Howard, council colleagues who are seeking re-election, Seybert is looking for new leadership reflecting the changing city. “Who is our next generation leader? The city needs to be led into the future by the future,” he said. “Is there somebody to take my place?”

New faces are emerging. You will hear about some of them in my next column.

Seybert believes there is, and that he would serve the city well by getting out of the way.

“Nobody can step up unless there’s a place to step up.” He said there are such leaders emerging and he is likely to endorse someone he describes as from the “next generation. … I don’t know who that will be, yet.”

How he might next be engaged and of service he has yet to decide, Seybert said, but it will be about what’s next for the city, not about how Redwood City used to be.

“I don’t believe in leading an organization by looking in the rear-view mirror,” he said.


Political Climate by Mark Simon: Redwood City Council Race starts early; incumbent Seybert bows out

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For the last 13 years, I worked at the San Mateo County Transit District, and often I would tell people I was a recovering journalist. For the prior 35 years, I worked for newspapers as a political writer and local columnist, including the Redwood City Tribune, the Peninsula Times-Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle before leaving the news business.

Well, so much for that. Starting with this column, I am returning to the news business, writing for Climate Online and Climate Magazine. It is personally exciting to write and report regularly on the community where I have worked and lived for more than 40 years, a community I love for what it was and what it remains – dynamic, restless, always looking for what’s next.

There is no better time than right now to write about Redwood City. It will be a watershed political year at time when the city is poised to become the capital of the Peninsula, when change is occurring in every corner and when we all have to find a way to manage what is happening here.

As a columnist, I have the freedom to express a point of view, but, more than anything else, I believe in fairness, facts and openness in government and politics. Everyone will get a fair shake from me and everyone will be held accountable for what they say, including me. I have no interest in opinion masquerading as fact or opinion built on false assumptions.

As we launch this new enterprise, few things are dominating the local landscape quite like the race this year for the Redwood City City Council (that’s right – city, twice), which encompasses everything else on anyone’s mind – housing, transportation and traffic, digesting the changes that have occurred and the changes still to come.

Three council seats are up this election cycle, the first aligned with a statewide general election, an impact we’ll address in another column.

Incumbent Jeff Gee clearly intends to seek another term, and incumbent Diane Howard confirmed to Climate Online she is running and has formed a campaign committee.  See more on Howard below.

Incumbent John Seybert has decided not to run, telling Climate Online in an interview that he thinks there should be room in this election for some new faces, and that he looks forward to serving his community in other ways. Seybert sat down for an extensive interview, thoughtfully reflecting on what has occurred during his nine years on the council and nearly 20 years in city service. That interview will be featured in a subsequent column.

The filing deadline for this race is so far off in the future, the City Clerk has yet to receive the county elections department’s schedule for candidates to file for office.

Nonetheless, a number of names already have cropped up as declared or would-be candidates, and a few have bowed out already.

Among the non-incumbents running, a Facebook posting appeared to be venue du jour for announcing.

Diana Reddy, self-described affordable housing advocate, declared her candidacy on Facebook recently “after considerable soul-searching,” virtually guaranteeing that rent control will be a campaign issue.

Planning Commissioner Rick Hunter, whose experience includes serving prominently on the city Parks and Rec Commission, the Redwood City Education Foundation and the city Parks and Arts Foundation, also declared on his Facebook page.

Christina Umhofer, a board member of Corbett Group Homes, said she has yet to announce her candidacy, but has formed a campaign committee and is running. By the way, she was described elsewhere as a “residentialist.” She told me that’s a label “other people have put on me,” apparently after she said, “I’m from
Redwood City, for the people of Redwood City,” hardly the kind of statement to inspire labeling.

The emergence of all three at once prompted some to hope eagerly for a slate to take on all others, but Hunter, among others flatly declared to Climate Online: “I am not running on a slate with any other candidates.”

Planning Commissioner Giselle Hale confirmed she will run. Her political experience includes field director for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and campaign manager for Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s 2008 re-election campaign.

Other names in circulation: Planning Commission Chair Nancy Radcliffe and Planning Commissioner Ernie Schmidt. If all these commissioners run, it should make for interesting meetings.

We will report at more length on all of these candidates in upcoming columns.

What is clear already is that the most outspoken critics of the new Redwood City want to target Gee for defeat.

As an aside, I have no patience for the anonymous complaint filed against Gee with the state Fair Political Practices Commission. It appears spurious at best, a view reinforced to no small degree by the anonymity of the complainant. One of the expectations all of us should have for this election – likely to be heated and, by some descriptions, contentious – is honesty. Until the person steps up, the inclination is to dismiss the complaint as solely prompted by the meanest of politics, intent on winning by tearing someone down. Whoever filed the complaint ought to step out of the shadows. If you want to challenge his ethics, show some of your own.

Anyway, expect Gee to run hard and with considerable support from most of the community’s high-profile leaders. More on Gee in future columns.

Also running for re-election is Diane Howard, who is seeking her sixth term on the council. She served four terms, stepped aside in 2009, and then ran again in 2013. As the current vice mayor, her re-election is likely to mean she will be mayor in two years, when the balance of her council colleagues is up for re-election.

In an interview, Howard said she is running because, “I absolutely love serving. … I absolutely love every element of it – the good, the bad and ugly.” Her record of service beyond the council was sufficient for her to receive the Sequoia Awards Outstanding Individual Award, reflecting a long list of volunteer activities in which she engaged over decades.

She acknowledged the current political climate “is difficult these days, people jumping to conclusions, saying bad things without thinking.” The way for an officeholder to counteract that is to invite people of all opinions “to have coffee and let’s talk.”

It is evident to everyone that Redwood City has changed, she said, and the next campaign is an opportunity to understand what that change has meant and to ask, “What can we do to make Redwood City the community we want it to be?”

Her focus in the coming term would be on housing, transportation, the next wave of change on El Camino Real and the quality and character of the architecture of the city’s new look.

“I agree some of our architecture is not something I’m proud of,” she said. As the city turns its attention to development of El Camino, she sees that as an opportunity “to do some really good architecture and building” that sets a look and feel for the city’s principal boulevard and western edge.

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